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What is fast fashion and why is it a problem?

Alex Crumbie explores the growing concern about the social and environmental impacts of the fast fashion clothing industry and sets out what's wrong with fast fashion.

Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in a number of senses: the changes in fashion are fast, the rate of production is fast; the customer’s decision to purchase is fast; delivery is fast; and garments are worn fast – usually only a few times before being discarded.

The rise of fast fashion has had devastating consequences, from its reliance on plastic fabrics and its enormous carbon footprint to its erosion of workers’ rights.

In this article we explain what we mean when we say ‘fast fashion’ and why it is so bad for people and the planet. 

What is fast fashion?

In the last few decades, we have seen fashion trends changing more and more quickly. Pressures on workers to produce more and at lower prices have grown alongside pressures on consumers to turn to the newest trends. 

Fast changing trends

At its heart, the fast fashion business model relies on consumers endlessly buying more clothes. Brands tempt consumers by offering ultra-cheap garments (for example, Missguided’s £1 bikini) and ever-changing new ranges. At the time of writing, fast fashion brand Shein featured 21,139 clothes under the ‘New in’ section of its website. 

Fashion brands have long used new styles and lower prices to attract customers, but previously brands would plan new ranges many months, even years, in advance. The pace of change was relatively slow and there were fewer products on offer. In comparison, fast fashion is focused on responding to ever-changing consumer tastes as quickly as possible.

For example, in the BBC’s ‘Breaking Fashion’ show we see Manchester-based fast fashion company, In the Style, reproducing a bodysuit worn by Kylie Jenner. The company manages to have the piece designed, manufactured and on sale within 10 days of the piece first being worn publicly by the celebrity.

The rise of fast fashion is intertwined with social media and celebrity/influencer culture. A celebrity posts a photo wearing a new outfit, and their followers want it, so fast fashion brands rush to be the first to provide it. Fast fashion brands often target young people - so called Gen Zs -, who have been brought up amongst social media and influencer culture. In fact, a recent survey found that almost 75% of 18-24 year olds believe influencers can be held somewhat accountable for the rise in disposable fashion.

Of course, the flow of causality is not that simple: fast fashion brands are not simply reacting to consumer demand, they are also creating it. But the essential point is that these brands operate on the basis of constantly producing new lines of clothes to meet the insatiable and ever-changing consumer demand for all things new.

Man sewing material on sewing machine

Fast production

Faster changing trends means that producers are under pressure to manufacture clothes more and more rapidly. Factories are expected to produce new lines with only a couple of month’s notice, meaning that their workload - and therefore the amount of employment they can offer to workers - is unpredictable and insecure.

The drive to produce garments rapidly has led many UK fast fashion companies to reshore clothing production to the UK, where previously almost all clothing brands sourced from less-economically developed countries such as Bangladesh or Vietnam.

Leicester has become a central hub for clothing production and many of the scandals associated with workers’ rights in the UK have been found in factories in the city.

The exploitation of workers in fast fashion supply chains is partly the result of brands pressuring suppliers to produce clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible. We talk about this more below.

Fast sale and delivery

The low-cost of fast fashion items encourages fast sale. The average person in the UK buys 60% more clothing today than in 2000. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than in any other country in Europe, and our addiction has grown - with online searches for ‘cheap clothes’ increasing 46.3% during the first coronavirus lockdown. 

Even if you are out-of-pocket you can buy items using Klarna and other easy credit services. Its post-purchase payment options allow you to defer paying for your garment for 14 to 30 days, much like a payday loan.

Most companies also offer cheap deals for quick delivery. At the time of writing, Boohoo offered unlimited next-day delivery for one year for just £7.99.

Fast use

It’s estimated that the average item of clothing is worn just 14 times, and in 2019 The Guardian reported that one in three young women considered an item worn just once or twice to be old.

Much modern clothing is not made to last. Due to super-fast production, designs are generally not well stress-tested before sale, and cheap synthetic fabrics are used in order to keep costs low. Much of it will end up in landfill after only being worn a handful of times.

Five things you need to know about fast fashion

The problems with fast fashion 

What are the environmental problems with fast fashion?

The endless creation of new clothes comes with a heavy environmental price. Every year the sector requires 93 billion cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people, and is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution as a result of textile treatment and dyeing.

There are also numerous problems with the materials and processes used. For example, cotton production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. 

The industry also has a heavy carbon footprint, which is responsible for up to 10% of total global carbon emissions, and estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

The above problems affect the clothing sector more broadly, but one issue is particularly endemic to fast fashion: plastic.

How much plastic do clothes contain?

The rise of fast fashion has been heavily dependent on synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane, which are made from heavily processed petrochemicals (fossil fuels). These materials are cheap to produce – polyester, for example, costs half as much per kilo as cotton – and therefore allow brands to keep prices low, though with a high environmental price-tag.

Polyester is the most widely used of these synthetic fibres and is now found in over half of all textiles produced. It is generally produced from polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET, a type of plastic derived from crude oil and natural gas – also used to make items such as plastic bottles.

The ubiquitousness of plastic in clothing means that the textile sector accounts for 15% of total plastic use; the only sectors that use more are construction and packaging. Many brands are making a song and dance about using recycled plastics for their clothes, but a recent report by the RSA found that the actual level of recycled content was pitifully low. Across four major online fast fashion brands, the use of recycled fabrics was a mere 4%.

Our analysis of Shein’s website found its recycled content was even lower, at only 0.5%, despite the brand claiming, “When selecting materials, we do our best to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester.”

Recycling plastics where possible has some benefits, but it does nothing to address the problem of microfibres – the miniscule bits of fabric that are released when clothes are worn, washed, or disposed of, that find their way into our bodies and the natural world. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.

These fibres have been found almost everywhere: from the summit of Mount Everest to the placentas of unborn babies. We still do not know the effects they may have.

How much waste does the clothing industry cause?

The industry is also responsible for enormous amounts of textile waste. The amount of textiles being produced globally per person has more than doubled from 5.9kg to 13kg over the period 1975-2018. 

Many of the clothes bought are thrown away after being worn just a handful of times: the industry produces an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste annually, much of which is burnt or finds its way to landfill, while less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments. 

Some of this waste consists of items that never even reached the consumer – clothing lines that have become outdated and so are destroyed instead of sold.

Piles of clothes in desert
Image from AFP

Atacama clothing mountain highlights over-consumption

The shocking reality of fast fashion’s waste problem hit the headlines in November 2021 with an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report on the mountains of discarded clothing ending up in Chile’s Atacama Desert. A total of 59,000 tons of second-hand clothing is said to arrive in Chile for resale each year from Europe, the US and Asia. However, an estimated 39,000 tons is unable to be sold and ends up dumped in the desert.

The situation highlights the myriad of problems in the fashion industry. The over-consumption of new clothing means that even an increasingly thriving second-hand clothing market cannot keep up, and this is exacerbated by the amount of poor-quality clothing not suitable for resale.

While second-hand markets certainly play a huge role in reducing the carbon impact of clothing when replacing the purchase of new items, a system where clothing gets shipped around the world multiple times, only to be wasted anyway is clearly not sustainable.

Clothing made of plastics

The piles mounting up in the Atacama, and in landfills across the world, are not biodegradable. Much of our clothing is made from synthetic plastics and also contains chemicals harmful to the environment.

Many fashion brands are pledging to address the issue of the use of virgin plastics in clothing manufacture, a material derived from the fossil fuel industry. However, this is often by replacing it with recycled synthetics.

And this may well be from recycled plastic bottles but, as a recent Guardian article points out: “PET bottles are also part of a well-established, closed-loop recycling system, where they can be efficiently recycled at least 10 times. The apparel industry is 'taking from this closed-loop, and moving it into this linear system because most of those clothes won’t be recycled', said Maxine Bédat, Executive Director of New Standard Institute. "Converting plastic from bottles into clothes may actually accelerate its path to the landfill, especially for low-quality, fast-fashion garments which are often discarded after only a few uses.”

The fashion industry, governments and consumers need to act to slow down consumption and ensure that garments are sustainable at every stage of their life cycle, from fibre production, to manufacture, to end-of-life.

Why is it bad for workers?

In order to offer clothes at ultra low prices, fast fashion brands need their costs to be low. One of the main ways of doing this is to drive down the wages of garment workers in the supply chain. 

For years, brands have ‘chased the cheap needle’ around the world, seeking countries with the lowest labour standards so that garment workers can be easily exploited. In recent years, many UK fast fashion brands have found the cheap needle closer to home, often in quasi-legal factories in cities such as Leicester.

In the UK, Boohoo has become somewhat the symbol of fast fashion’s worker exploitation problem. Numerous exposés have shown that while the pockets of Boohoo’s directors are bursting at the seams, the people who actually stitch the seams of its clothing are paid a pittance, with some found to have been paid under half the minimum wage.

The Levitt report, which looked in depth at Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain, found that “The allegations of unacceptable working conditions and underpayment of workers are not only well-founded but are substantially true.” Levitt also claimed that these problems were endemic to the system and likely found across Boohoo’s supply chain.

Worker exploitation is an essential part of the fast fashion model. If an item is very cheap, chances are that the person who produced it was paid little. 

A 2022 report Unbearable Harassment: The Fashion Industry and Widespread Abuse of Female Garment Workers in Indian Factories, found that every single woman spoken to for the report (90), had either experienced or witnessed gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) carried out by male supervisors and managers at the factories they worked at.

“Verbal, physical, and sexual harassment exists in every garment factory – not just this one. It existed before COVID, it exists during COVID, and it will exist after COVID...” Smita, Tamal Nadu.

The report goes on to state that:

"Violence on the factory floor cannot be dismissed as just a factory-level problem; rather, it must be understood as an industry-wide culture of violence driven by the business model of global fashion brands”.

Garment workers protest in Bangladesh
Garment workers protest in Bangladesh - Image by Clean Clothes Campaign

Which are the leading fast fashion brands?

It is important to note that most of the fashion sector has become ‘faster’ in recent years. As such, even the more mainstream, established brands will be ‘fast’ to some extent. However, there are some brands that stand out as much faster than the rest:

If a brand is offering vast numbers of ‘new in’ clothes (usually thousands of new items every day) and its products are super cheap, then it is a fast fashion brand.


Missguided collapsed at the end of May 2022, leaving suppliers and workers out of pocket for months of completed orders.

The Frasers Group, controlled by the Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley, has reportedly bought the company out of administration for £20m. This process will take around two months to complete.

We will review the impact of the collapse and new owner in due course.

Meanwhile, Labour Behind the Label have campaigned to demand workers and suppliers are paid, amidst reports that many are owed thousands of pounds.

Update from COP26 on fashion

Considering its comparative carbon impact, maybe the fashion industry deserved more focus at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, but it was not totally without attention.

In the second week, an update to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was announced, with more ambitious targets for carbon reduction to align with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree aim. The charter currently has 130 signatories including brands such as H&M, Primark, Levi’s, Chanel and Adidas.

A request for government-backed incentives for using sustainable materials was also submitted by global non-profit Textile Exchange, with its COO, Claire Bergkamp, stating: “We need both regulations to stop bad action and incentives for sustainable materials to help reduce the price burden that currently exists for sourcing more responsibly. Our hope is through trade incentives and tariff reductions, we can level the playing field, without placing the burden on suppliers across the value chain”.

The call was supported by 50 of the world’s largest fashion and textile companies. It is an interesting turn of events considering the UK Government’s complete reluctance to regulate the UK fashion industry as recommended by the 2019 Fixing Fashion report. The call could also be viewed as a profit-driven industry with a history of wreaking havoc on the environment, now demanding it be subsidised for doing the right thing. However, it is true that with such a harmful and complex industry strong legislation is badly needed to start curtailing fashion’s destructive path.

Awful conditions at a Shein factory exposed

A Channel 4 documentary broadcast autumn 2022 went undercover at a Shein factory to expose predictably awful conditions and exhausted, exploited workers.

The brand is also shown to copy designs from independent designers, rely on unpaid influencers for its marketing, and use manipulative sales techniques such as countdown timers and multi-buys to encourage overconsumption.

Yet the company is hugely popular and massively outsells its fast fashion rivals. Despite many similar documentaries and decades of campaigning on garment worker rights, it seems that cheap clothes are an addiction we just can’t break.

Check out our clothing guides to find some much more ethical options for new clothes, or choose second hand.

What progress has been made in the decade since the Rana Plaza disaster?

Rana Plaza building collapsed debris

The Rana Plaza disaster and the Accord

April 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh which killed more than 1,100 garment workers, an event that exposed the appalling human cost of fast fashion. Simon Birch asks what progress, if any, has been made over the past decade in the fight against fast fashion.

Following the Rana Plaza disaster the Bangladesh Accord was established. This was the first and only legally binding agreement that holds brands to account for health and safety in the garment industry, and is designed to prevent another Rana Plaza tragedy from ever happening again.

“The Accord represents a significant victory for textile workers,” says Anna Bryher from Labour Behind the Label, one of the UK’s leading campaign groups against fast fashion. “There’s been a massive improvement in the safety of clothing factories in Bangladesh,” acknowledges Bryher.

Whilst this is welcome good news, the bad news is that the Accord hasn’t done anything to address the pitifully low wages that Bangladeshi garment workers still receive.

But whilst the global fast fashion business model is still based on exploitative low wages, the brands themselves are now coming under increasing pressure.

Profits at fast fashion pioneers ASOS and Boohoo are tumbling whilst last year Missguided, one of the UK’s flagship fast fashion companies went bust, all largely as a result of the cost-of-living crisis that’s seen soaring costs of everything from cotton to shipping.

Environmental claims from fast fashion companies under the spotlight

Last year, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into whether eco-friendly and sustainability claims made by the fast fashion chains Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda constitute greenwashing.

Meanwhile over in Europe, the EU is stepping up its fight against throwaway culture by aiming to end fast fashion by 2030.

In an ambitious initiative launched last year, the EU announced its intention to vastly expand its clothing design rules on recycling and sustainability. In just seven years’ time, all textiles sold within the EU must be recyclable, free of hazardous substances and contain a high percentage of recycled fibres.

All these actions are clearly good news for the environment but the bottom line is that fast fashion still demands the exploitation of garment workers.

However, it’s important to remember that the problem is with the clothing companies, not with the clothing industry.

“We all need clothes and the clothing industry provides millions of jobs around the world from farmers who provide the cotton and fabrics to workers in garment factories,” says Heather Webb, a former researcher at Ethical Consumer who has since worked within the fast fashion industry as an ethical trade analyst.

“Big fashion brands are consistently treating the factories they buy from poorly and it’s the workers and environment who suffer,” says Fiona Gooch from Transform Trade that campaigns for a more ethical global trading system.

“We need a fashion watchdog to regulate UK garment retailers along the same lines as the existing supermarket watchdog that’s successfully reduced the unfair buying practices of the UK’s largest food retailers,” explains Gooch. “A fashion watchdog would reduce abusive and unfair purchasing practices of the garment retailers which would ultimately benefit garment workers.”

Whilst acknowledging that a fashion watchdog would be a good thing, Anna Bryher believes that it wouldn’t fix the problem of low wages within the clothing industry. What’s needed says Bryher is new legislation to enable clothing brands to be held to account for their unfair purchasing practices.

Heather Webb agrees. “We need government intervention in the market,” says Webb. “One of the key things that could improve both the pay and working conditions of garment workers is a law outlawing the unethical buying practices of clothing brands."

Progress by brands is extremely slow

The Ethical Fashion Report published in 2023, 10 years after the first edition, found that although there has been some progress for garment workers, overall change is still too slow. Their research found that at the current rate of progress, it would be 75 years before all companies are paying a living wage at even a minimum of one factory per company. The vast majority of clothing companies (84%) were not sourcing from any factories which paid a living wage.

Find out more in the report and also use the charity’s ‘Speak Out’ tool to see how individual brands are doing and let them know what you think.

People's clothing habits are changing

Despite the pervasiveness of fast fashion, things are beginning to improve.

New research from WRAP has found that compared with similar research carried out in 2013, we are wearing our clothes for slightly longer. Jeans, for example, now have a longevity of just over four years, compared to just over three in 2013. The research also found that more than half of us are happy to buy second hand clothes; nearly 60% of us put a lot of effort into maintaining our clothes; and that a similar proportion look for ways to repair clothes when they’re damaged.

The WRAP research also estimates that the UK's wardrobes hold 1.6 billion items of unworn clothes, an average of 31 items for each adult. And yet we’re still spending more than £4 billion on shopping for clothes each month. WRAP makes the point that as textiles and fashion are responsible for between 4% and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we need a revolution in our clothing habits to make our wardrobes sustainable.

Circular clothing industry

The purpose of the WRAP research was to understand the population’s receptiveness to circular business models for clothing. These included second hand, upcycling, subscription, rental (pay-per-wear) and repair (where a brand repairs an item of clothing a customer has purchased from it for a fee).

WRAP found that 40% of people are likely to use a subscription service and that 58% are open to using a repair service. Among those who have already used a circular business model, the majority said they would do so again.

WRAP argues that this shows there is a clear case for clothing brands and retailers to adopt circular business models.

Read the full WRAP report into clothing longevity on their website and read tips on repairing and buying second hand in our article on upcycling and buying second hand clothing.

UK Government report on fast fashion 

In 2019 the UK Government published a report on fast fashion and sustainability. The Environmental Audit Committee published 'Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability', with a number of recommendations. Their report is available on the UK parliament website.

What can you do about fast fashion?

  1. Buy consciously and look for ethical brands
  2. Buy second hand or repair what you already have.
  3. Join a fast fashion campaign, such as Fashion Revolution or the Clean Clothes campaign.
  4. Follow our 10 tips to ditch fast fashion.
  5. Maybe most importantly, buy less clothing.